Santee Cooper's board approved a new business strategy Monday, shifting the state-run utility's energy forecast away from coal and toward solar power and gas-fired plants.
But the board abandoned a proposed cost-saving agreement with The Southern Co. — one of the largest investor-owned utilities in the Southeast — after state officials objected to the planned partnership.
Mark Bonsall, Santee Cooper's new CEO, wanted to explore ways the two power companies could save money by jointly managing their fuel supplies, purchasing, energy trading and coal ash waste.
In a discussion with The Post and Courier a few hours before Monday's board meeting, Bonsall called it a "benign, straightforward" agreement. He also recognized the opposition it was generating among lawmakers and the state's 20 electric cooperatives, Santee Cooper's largest customers.
"I've come to discover there are more kinds of storms in South Carolina than hurricanes, I guess," Bonsall said. "It's seemed to have gathered quite a bit of attention."
Legislators, state officials and the co-ops have argued the arrangement would have undermined the state's attempt to find potential bidders for Santee Cooper. Lawmakers plan to vote early next year on whether to sell the Moncks Corner-based utility, hire another company to manage it or keep it under state control.
Bonsall's other proposals for Santee Cooper were easier for the board members to accept.
After a short presentation, the board voted unanimously on a strategy that will drastically cut the amount of power the utility generates from coal-fired plants.
"This is an exciting day for Santee Cooper," said Dan Ray, Santee Cooper's acting board chairman. "A lot of hard work went into this plan. This is a real plan that will be incorporated for Santee Cooper."
"This is a new day," Ray added.
The decision to shutter the coal-fired power plant comes at a time when Santee Cooper is trying to convince state lawmakers not to sell the state-run utility.
The percentage of Santee Cooper's electricity generated by coal will fall from roughly 52 percent to around 30 percent by 2033, according to the new forecast.
Most of that drop will result from Santee Cooper phasing out its Winyah Generating Station, one of its aging coal-fired plants, near Georgetown.
In place of Winyah, Santee Cooper plans to add roughly 1,000 megawatts of utility-scale solar power and another 200 megawatts of battery storage, which will allow the utility to provide electricity to homes even when the sun isn't shining.
Santee Cooper's new leaders are also considering significant new investments in natural gas power.
They want to buy smaller gas-fired turbines by 2023 to help supply power when energy usage peaks in the summer and winter months.
But it's eyeing an even larger investment in natural gas in the long term. According to the energy forecasts, Santee Cooper will explore building or purchasing larger gas-fired plants, which are capable of supplying up to 1,100 megawatts.
The plan is expected to drop Santee Cooper's carbon emissions by 43 percent compared to 2005 levels. The presentation said this would allow Santee Cooper to be "leaner and greener."
But it would also ensure nearly half of Santee Cooper's electricity comes from natural gas after 2033. Those plants also release carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases that are linked to rising global temperatures.
The gas plants may also rely on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a massive interstate pipeline that is being built from West Virginia into North Carolina.
That's concerning for environmentalists. They want to see Santee Cooper invest more in solar power and other renewable energy sources that don't contribute to a warming planet.
"We welcome the commitment to solar energy, but Santee Cooper could save ratepayers millions more dollars with more solar," said Blan Holman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston.
Santee Cooper, Holman added, could do more to speed up the closure of the Winyah statiion and its other coal plant in Cross.
“Santee Cooper should put the pedal down on closing costly coal plants and be done with coal entirely in a decade," he said.
Bonsall and other senior managers, however, believe the energy plan provides a new foundation for the state-run utility. But his work isn't done.
Santee Cooper's leaders plan to continue their reform efforts until November, when they submit a formal proposal to state lawmakers.